Tag Archives: Feminism

Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

In the most recent years, the gender gap in STEM interest has been increasing.

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by papers with equations scribbled all over them. Believe me, I wasn’t pretending to be a savant for the world’s attention. I went to a public place so that I would stop saying aloud “Ugh, you moron, you don’t know any of this.”

To my surprise, a woman stopped me on her way out and asked if I was majoring in math. I looked up and responded with a hint of defeat that I was trying to study engineering. Then I asked if she had previously studied math.

She responded that she had, and then proceeded to tell me about all of the different options it gave her, and about the different jobs she had which finally led her to the marketing of accessories (she pointed to a purse she had with her). We had a short discussion about all of the opportunities that having a background in math and science offers you. It doesn’t force you into one single career; it opens a road to opportunity.

Yet, in the United States, it seems we are still stuck in the belief that math is hard, or that it is reserved for only the smartest students. Believe me, you don’t have to be a genius to learn processes that go with math and science.

Pursuing an education in STEM doesn’t shovel you into a basement corner where you have to sit and endlessly pump out math equations, or drink coffee and write computer code all day. STEM fields teach you a way of thinking. Of course, there are engineers who will go into “hard-core” engineering, just as there are English majors who will devote their lives to researching a single form of literature from a very specific time period and geographic location. Certainly, there are people who have specific passions and talents in life, and pursue education based on this. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, many people want an education leading to a career of sorts that contributes to the world in a positive way and provides a stable income. My concern is that young women are being discouraged from educational paths that provide this because they are mislead about what studying the sciences or engineering entails.

The Interest in STEM Fields

Below is a plot of male versus female interest in STEM fields. You can see the whole report here.

The gap in STEM interest between high school freshmen males and females has been increasing.

Seeing that the overall interest in STEM has been increasing makes me incredibly happy. It is wonderful that students are becoming more interested in STEM fields. Many new and upcoming jobs have some component of science or engineering. Just look at how often we use computers and modern technology outside of what is considered “the engineering world.”

What is disappointing is that female interest in STEM fields has been declining since the class of 2010. In fact, the gender gap in STEM interest is steadily increasing. In addition to the declining female interest, the study also states “since the graduating class of 2000, African American interest in STEM majors/careers has dropped by nearly 30%.”

Engineering and science are fields that should include everyone. The skills learned allow for numerous career paths from medicine to business. While I think it is excellent that we see an increasing interest with male students (specifically Caucasian men), I must ask, what is it about our culture or the way that we are currently portraying engineering and science to high school students that is causing women and African American students to have a declining interest in more recent years?

No, actually a gun isn’t going to protect me from rape

**Trigger warning for discussion of rape incidents and victim blaming

One of the perks of being an undergrad at my university was that every time there was a police report about a rape or sexual assault in a dark ally, a university wide email would go out with tips on how not to get raped. The emails contained very “useful” information like “don’t walk around alone at night.” Giving women tips on how not to get raped seems to be a popular thing to do these days.

The only issue is that it is absolutely useless and ridiculous. For most women, these tips are just a routine part of life, not new advice. Many of us try our damned hardest not to put ourselves in any situation where we would be “at fault” for getting raped. Even though most rapes don’t occur from strangers in the dark night, we still follow the unwritten law that darkness and alone are a bad combination for women, as we are told this again and again. It goes to the extent where some women at my university avoid late night study groups or review sessions just to avoid getting stuck having to get home late at night. Sending out an email to all of us telling us something so useless is just demeaning.

This leads me to my next point on victim blaming. It’s the self-defense argument. Recently there has been a lot of gun hype on my current university campus in addition to the huge hype that is in the media about gun control. Those who have a conceal and carry permit are now allowed to carry guns on my campus. There was an article about it the local paper, and a female student was interviewed. She said it was important for her to carry a gun because she had a late evening class and had to walk home alone. I can understand her fear, and I am sure it is empowering to feel that you are defending yourself. In fact, as female students, we are usually bombarded with advice telling us not to walk alone at night, so I can see when there is a glimmer of hope where we might be able to ignore this unwritten rule, it would be taken up. However, I don’t think a gun solves the problem of rape. It doesn’t even come close.


Victim Blaming

What finally triggered me to write this article was a picture going around in response to the comment made by Joe Salazar. A male friend posted it. Not only is it a disgusting image of a woman being victimized, it gives the wrong impression that guns magically ward away all rape. The image is shown below.


[Trigger Warning, image contains depiction of sexual assault]

The real rape statistics

The things I want to say to people passing this picture and similar ideas around

I want to ask the supporters of this image some questions about rape, since they seem to think rape can be used as a valiant argument for gun owners.

Just how often do you think rape occurs in a dark alley from some scary stranger? If I am walking alone at night and there is some guy walking behind me, should I reach into my purse and put my hand on my gun just in case? What if a man is walking towards me? Should I pull out my gun to let him know that I am not going to get raped tonight? After all, I probably wouldn’t know that he was out to rape me until it was too late.

How would you feel if you were walking down the street, and you walk up to some woman to ask her directions and she reaches into her purse to make sure she has her gun handy? After all, if she doesn’t, and you happen to be a rapist, it would be her fault for not trying to defend herself, right?

But let’s just throw that whole random stranger thing away for a minute. In a recent CDC report, only 13.8% of women who have been victims of rape reported that it was from a stranger. Now consider that a percentage of these stranger rapes were committed in situations where the victim was drugged or incapacitated and would not have the ability to defend themselves with a gun. In the small percentage that is left over, how often do you think a gun would really work? This article contains two stories of gun owners who were victims of rape. (Trigger Warning for the link).

Now, let’s talk about the 86.2% of rapes that are committed by someone that the victim knows. Do you really think women are going to make sure their gun is right on them when they are hanging out with an acquaintance? Furthermore, even if a female is carrying a gun on her, do you think if her acquaintance is making a move on her that she is going to shoot first and ask questions later? Don’t you think maybe she might be trying to process the situation instead, or be trying to think of ways to decline her acquaintance, or be in a state of shock or disbelief?

I don’t believe I know anyone who would be able to shoot a perceived friend that is trying to rape them. Not only because of the victim is trying to process the situation and determine what exactly is happening, but also because murder to most people seems like a very last resort, like something that would be used in a situation where if you don’t shoot now you will be killed immediately. Furthermore, as a society, we don’t deem rape as a very bad crime. The time done in jail is relatively short, and it definitely does not come anywhere near a death sentence. In fact, rape is so difficult to prove that it is estimated only 3% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. Using those statistics, can you imagine how difficult it would be for a woman to prove she was trying to defend herself against a potential rapist she shot at, who had not yet committed rape?


Guns might be a way for you to put your mind at ease when you are walking home, but in the end, rape is not some simple scene from a bad action film where a rapist jumps up behind an armed women with a gun already in hand, ready and loaded.

The reason we have rape is not because women aren’t defending themselves, or walking alone at night. The reason we have rape is because we have rapists.

Marriage Helps Male Professors Get Ahead

It does not help women. At least according to a study done with history professors in academia.

I realize this study did not focus on STEM fields, but I do notice something similar occurring in my area of study. I’ve had this discussion with many of my female friends as well. What happens when you are a female academic and you want to have a family?

It seems that much of the expectation and responsibility falls on the women. I’ve heard some people say it seems un-masculine for men to take paternity leave. Many of my mentors and role models are men who have wives that not only take care of the kids, they take care of day to day living tasks like paying bills, buying groceries, car and house maintenance, and anything else non-work related. My own mother was one of these amazing women, and there is no doubt it helped my father succeed.

Yet, when it comes to the complete reverse, I don’t see it happening. In fact, looking at all of the women I know as mentors in academia, none of them have a thrifty stay at home husband. That’s not to say it never happens. I’ve certainly encountered a few stay at home dads outside the academic world. However, it comes as no surprise that marriage is still statistically a detriment to women.

Something that I am seeing more often with the younger and newer generation of employees is dual parenting. Men and women are splitting the duties of child rearing more often. Technology has allowed for more flexible work schedules, or just working from home. So, now it is easier for couples to split up time at home with a child.

Maybe it is not longer maternity leave that we need to keep women in the work force. Maybe it is offering more flexible schedules to women AND men. Not only does it offer children time with both parents, it would eventually phase out discrimination women may face about being the ones to take time off from work for family issues.

Check out the video winners for a response to “Science: It’s a girl thing!”

Remember that Science, It’s a Girl Thing video–the one with girls dancing around, being girly, and loving the science of make-up? That video caused a lot of controversy, and gained a fair amount of negative attention. It was not what those on the university side had in mind for getting young women interested in science either.

The campaign itself prompted Curt Rice to propose a video contest, which allowed for young women in science to explain why women should go into the sciences. You can read more about this excellent contest and see the winning videos on Curt Rice’s blog. I encourage you to take a look. There were some really nice submissions.



Is Science Sexy?

Sitting in the audience I cringed a bit. Why was this even being discussed? Should I be upset, or should I be enthusiastic that someone was discussing how society should view women in the sciences?

Ira Flatow gave a talk at AGU in which he brought up the viewpoint that science is becoming sexy. The talk was centered on making science more accessible to everyone and getting people more interested in science. He is well known for his NPR Science Friday, and he was now giving a talk to a large audience of scientists at the American Geophysical Union, a conference comprising of between 15,000-20,000 attendees. The response of the audience was quite telling.

During the talk, a clip of the highly controversial “Science. It’s a Girl Thing” video was played. This takes place during the video link at 39:05 (the talk video is at the bottom of this post). Listen carefully to the response. You can hear some of the men sitting near the front of the audience screaming “woo” and “yeah” after the video plays. Listen closer though. There are women whose voices are drowned out. One woman I was sitting near screamed out “BOO!” and several were joining suit.

Why was the video so controversial?

The video promotes the stereotype that young women are just interested in make-up and sexy things and being sexy. Ira did point out that this video was controversial and showed another clip of the Barber Lab Quartet saying that this is how many scientists think women in the sciences should be viewed– as in, smart, creative and fun.

Is science sexy?

A few of examples of famous scientists were used as examples of how science is “sexy” in the talk. They included a young Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Bobak Ferdowsi. Do I think they seem like freaking awesome people? You bet. Do I hang up posters of them in my room because they are sexy? Um…NO! In this instance, they were getting called sexy because they seem like cool people who are well-liked by society, and have done interesting things.

While Ira had some excellent points about getting people more interested in science, I was not as enthusiastic with his examples of why science was becoming sexy for women. These included a science site that teaches girls about physics by explaining things like how much pressure a high heel exerts on the ground, science cheerleaders, and Danica McKellar writing books for girls about why math doesn’t suck and why they should stick with it. Danica is also seen as a cool role model because she is good at math (she got a degree in it), she gives great advice, and she is still desired by men (she has posed in men’s magazines such as Maxim).

I am not upset with what these people are doing. Using cultural views of women may be necessary to get some women interested in science and learning. I don’t want the doors to be closed on anyone because they can’t look past a stereotype (like girls are supposed to be hot, and girls like fashion and high heels).  I also think that it may be one way to fight the view that you have to be ugly or unfeminine to go into the sciences if you are a female. These women are fighting back to show that that just isn’t true, and this may help more young women to not be turned away from things like engineering and physics. Since we place such a high value of attractiveness of young women, many young girls may be turned away from something that is perceived to be for ugly women.

What is upsetting to me are the stereotypes themselves. We have a stereotype that women like fashion and being sexy. Additionally we place high beauty standards on young women. This conflicts with the stereotype that women in the sciences are not attractive. Now the two have to fight it out in a culture war devoted to the appearance of women.

My Takeaway from the talk-

What Makes a Scientist “Sexy” to Society?

Here are two examples given in the talk of people who are making science sexy.


Women are “sexy” if they have posed in Maxim. Danica’s scientific contribution as a mathematician is writing motivational books for girls about math. You can still be sexy and like math. She is great at math, and men find her attractive.


Men in science are “sexy” if they express their uniqueness, seem like cool, decent people, and do or say incredibly intelligent things. Bobak shows his individuality with a sweet Mohawk, and became famous after being seen with it in the control room for the Mars Curiosity rover landing.


It seems like we have a discrepancy in what is considered “sexy” for women versus men in the sciences. The word sexy for men in the sciences means they are cool or have made some sort of interesting science contribution. The word sexy for women in the sciences means they are sexy in a sexual way.

Maybe the conflicting stereotypes about women in the sciences being unattractive and the cultural expectations on female beauty will eventually cancel each other out to the point where we can quit talking about the appearance of women in the sciences, and we can start focusing on the interesting scientific contributions of women.

Why does everything have to be sexy?

I really do like the idea of showing that scientists and engineers are normal people who range from athletes to writers to models to musicians. There are projects out there devoted to showing that scientists are just normal, relatable people, for example, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. Showing that scientists are normal people may spark interest in the general population and show that science is something we can all make an attempt to understand.

I realize that we are currently living in an environment filled with sexual images and objectification. We have to work to promote science and education within this environment. It’s not easy. However, I don’t think the answer is to throw more sex at something to make it attractive. Sex may sell an image, but it’s not going to cause people to appreciate science the way we would like. We need to be a bit more creative than that. After all, science shouldn’t be about being sexy, it should be about the general population recognizing that science is for everyone. We should all be excited about new ideas and discoveries that can improve the quality of life and move our society forward.

The video below shows Ira Flatow’s AGU talk.

Women Have Small Brains and Other Biases of Science

But we must not forget that woman are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men, a difference which we should not exaggerate but which is, nonetheless, real. We are therefore permitted to suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.

-Paul Broca

Paul Broca 1824-1880

Back in the mid 1800’s there lived a professor named Paul Broca. His work on the brain was instrumental in brain anatomy and anthropology. He determined the part of the brain associated with speech, revolutionizing our understanding of human speech. His work was thorough, and he was ahead of the times in his scientific thinking. However, even the best scientists can be influenced by social bias.

Paul Broca performed measurements of cranial sizes of male and female skulls, and found that the female cranial size was smaller. Was the measurement correct? Well, to a certain extent, yes. Yet, the problem with the study was his conclusion. A great summary of some of Broca’s study can be found in this essay by Stephen Jay Gould (PDF). The issue is that there are numerous factors that may lead to intelligence, and not all are linked to brain size. In fact, with newer technology, we have also found that it is neural connections within the brain which make a great contribution to intelligence.

Female Brains Are Still Smaller

Now, the time of Paul Broca was very different from modern day. You would think something like using brain size to prove women are less intelligent would be a thing of the past. Not necessarily. A study from 2006 by Philippe Rushton claimed that men were on average smarter than women due to brain size. This debate was still going on in 2006.

This same author published a paper in 2002 citing differences in brain size in different races are what cause the IQ differences. The paper, called “Brain size, IQ, and racial-group differences: Evidence from musculoskeletal traits,” in which the concluding sentence of the abstract states “brain size-related variables provide the most likely biological mediators of the race differences in intelligence.” [Rushton, 2002].

When coming to scientific conclusions, it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation.

The ultimate problem with studies like these is that they completely disregard cultural and societal contributions to intelligence. For instance, we are just now coming into a time where more women are applying to college than men, and more equal opportunities are available to minorities and women.


To end, I leave you with the most recent tidbit of information I could find. For the first time in recent history, women are scoring higher on IQ tests than men.

So much for that publication citing the reason for women’s lower IQ scores was due to their brain size.

Thoughtful Children’s Toys

I think this is a beautiful idea. While there is still argument about whether or not women are better at verbal skills and worse at spatial reasoning due to cultural upbringing or nature, designing children’s toys to give young girls more options in life helps them benefit in many ways. Creating an engineering toy that blends with what young girls in our current culture are interested in is brilliant. That’s what the creator of GoldieBlox is doing.